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FIT TO BE RED TIED

Power lunch conjures up a distinct image, doesn't it? Briefcase-wielding men in dark suits and red ties. American Express card-carrying women wearing just the right amount of real gold jewelry, and with hair and nails that take time and money to achieve. It evokes the sound of conversations conducted sotto voce, peppered with mysterious and impressive-sounding acronyms. The flash and exchange of business cards. The shaking of hands.

I'm no William Safire, but as far as I can tell the phrase "power lunch" originated during the fast-moving 1980s. Heck, in the laid-back 1970s, we called such eating meetings "business lunches." We said things like, "Hey, where's a good place to take my client for lunch?" Not, "Hey, I gotta power lunch today, where should I go?" Of course, back then, we didn't own power ties or power suits either; we simply wore proper business clothes.

If recent events are any indicator, "power lunch" in Phoenix means different things to different people. Popular see-and-be-seen restaurants are not always the best places to conduct certain types of business. Some people require a busy but private environment, where attaches filled with greenbacks can be easily surrendered. These people, as we know from well-publicized transcripts, sometimes go to Stuart Anderson's Black Angus.

Others seek an elegant, intimate setting. One that reminds them of their college eating club or fraternity. Where lunch can be as simple as soup and sandwich, but the tableware is weighty and silver-plated, the walls wood-panelled, the service attentive.

Folks with this type of atmosphere in mind are bound to prefer the Grill at the Ritz-Carlton. I mean, isn't the businessman we elected governor responsible for the very existence of this luxurious Camelback corridor property? (Answer: Yes.) And isn't Governor J. Fife Symington III proof positive that red ties still have power in Arizona? (Answer: Yes.)

I lunch twice at the Grill. The first time I am merely someone's guest, and not strictly "on duty." The second time I bring an up-and-coming business woman who will receive her MBA degree in May. My impressions both times are nearly identical.

The Grill strikes me as the type of place where you and your literary agent could have a frank talk when she comes to town. It's quiet, it's stately, it's in the center of Phoenix, but feels hidden away, private. I like the mahogany-lined walls, the fireplace, the tapestry-covered chairs. I like the linen napkins, the heavy silverware, the old-money paintings of dogs and horses. Comfortable armchairs and couches form a tasteful lounge at the entrance to the Grill. At one end of the room is the bar. At the other end are the tables. There aren't very many. The Grill is an intimate dining spot where tables are well-spaced to ensure confidential conversation--unless you're like the woman across the room from us who speaks so loudly we now know her nails are natural, not fake.

She, however, is the exception. Most of the diners here are men in dark suits. Several have that relaxed, big-picture look of CEOs. Others wear a more urgent expression as they dine: These are detail men, middle managers. Tourists and other members of the leisure class make up the rest of the customer base. You can tell by their tieless-and-jacketless attire.

The Grill's lunch menu is small and fairly casual. Prices range from $3.50 to $14.25. Appetizers, soup, salads, sandwiches, entrees and side dishes are offered. Desserts aren't listed, but are available. They are brought tableside on a tray to tempt you.

As wonderful as all of this may sound, the reality is disappointing. A roast beef sandwich with blue Brie and grain mustard on a green-peppercorn brioche, is, in the final analysis, a roast beef sandwich. It comes with dill pickles and vinaigrette potato salad. It is nothing exceptional, despite its promising description. Shrimp salad with avocado and sprouts on a croissant has a different problem. I would not call lengths of shrimp meat, bathed in mayonnaise with little else to flavor it "shrimp salad." I wish smaller shrimp had been employed, or that these generous-size shrimp were chopped into pieces. I find myself reaching for the salt shaker in an attempt to bring this "blandwich" to life--and I rarely add salt to my food. What would really help is diced serrano chiles.

Salads may be a better way to go, though even these are underwhelming. A salad of sliced grilled chicken with field greens and shiitake mushrooms dressed in spicy peanut vinaigrette is tasty, but not so compelling that I would order it again. A fillet of grilled ahi tuna is presented on a bed of romaine lettuce seasoned with caesar dressing. Small cubes of polenta, misnamed "croutons," dot the surface. The combination of flavors is lovely, but the tuna is slightly dry.

 

The item I like the most is white bean soup. The Grill makes its with extra-virgin olive oil and flavors it with grated Parmesan. It is best when served hot. Unfortunately, this is a fifty-fifty proposition the two times I try it.

I also sample the soup of the day, lentil and wild rice. The thin-brothed mixture of vegetables, whole lentils and nicely chewy grains of wild rice is a bit salty, but pleasant. On the whole, I prefer the white bean soup.

Of the hot entrees on the menu at the Grill, nothing piques my interest. The choices sound large and heavy for lunchtime fare, real man-food: New York strip steak, tortellini and duck sausage in marsala cream, saffron linguini with red or white clam sauce. My dining accomplices and I stick with salads and sandwiches.

There is a reason, of course. This stategy always leaves room for dessert. I favor the parallel cake: a dense, flourless chocolate cake, topped with white-chocolate mousse, accompanied by a raspberry sauce. I finish every last smidgen with no effort.

Service is good at the Grill, though the room seems understaffed. On one visit, our waiter has too many tables, including one with a large and demanding party of business travelers. Another time, our waitress's performance slacks off slightly when the restaurant begins to fill.

Though the Grill makes an effort and nearly succeeds, this is not the place to come when you want to impress a business associate with mind-blowing food. However, if serious business talk takes precedence over comestibles, the Ritz-Carlton's clubby, sequestered room might provide the perfect setting for clinching a deal or negotiating just about anything.

My business is to eat; I don't eat to do business. Stuart Anderson's Black Angus on East Camelback Road will forever live in infamy as the place of choice for Arizona legislators doing "under the table" business with a certain "J. Vincent." And the food? It's passable--well, it's quick, anyway.

The sheer notoriety of Black Angus is what draws me to the place. I bring along a dining accomplice who has an eagle's eye when it comes to spotting politicos and businesspeople worth noting. Sadly, there's nary a one in sight. They're scared off, no doubt, by recent bad press. Still, I do see a party named "Keating" on the reservation list. Could it be? Nah . . . We are led to a tall, tall booth and seated. "Yes," I say, patting the vinyl seat. "This is just perfect for sliding over a briefcase full of money."

The tables next to us are surrounded by smoked-glass partitions. Cheap polyester suits and twelve-dollar ties are much in evidence. The women all appear to be struggling something-or-others. A few dine alone and crunch numbers with their salads. "Everyone here looks like a crook," my accomplice observes. "Like they're all on the make, but they haven't made anything."

Waiters are soon upon us. "Go ahead," one prods the other. Then, to us, he adds, "It's his last day of training." "Oh," we say to the trainee. "You're doing very well." He blushes and thanks us.

But, the clock is running. Black Angus' sole mission at lunchtime is to serve everyone quickly: salad, entree, coffee, check. This business crowd must return to the office on time or face the consequences. No one is here for a leisurely lunch--Black Angus makes sure of that.

Our waiter-in-training brings us a big plastic bowl of salad to divide onto our two salad plates. Our salad dressings are brought on the side. I think the serving is chintzy, considering my weight-conscious accomplice has only ordered soup and salad. There's barely enough for the two of us to have one small serving.

Fortunately, I don't have long to fret over it. My roast prime rib of beef and her vegetable soup follow quickly along. The prime rib is basic, but pretty good. I like the horseradish sauce and scoop of mashed potatoes that come with it. My accomplice's vegetable soup is a thin broth full of carrots, celery and the like. "Believe it or not, it's good," she says. I believe her.

We're in and out of Black Angus in fewer than 45 minutes. We skip dessert, but load up on several cups of decaf before departing. After all, we're just worker bees on the clock, too. We have a weekly meeting to attend.

As we walk through the dark labyrinth of booths, my accomplice and I are hit with the same realization. "It's like office cubicles with food," we laugh, then pass into the daylight outside.

The Grill at the Ritz-Carlton, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 6 to 10:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, 3 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday.

 

Stuart Anderson's Black Angus, 2125 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-9741 (and several other Valley locations). Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, noon to 10 p.m., Sunday.

ritz grill

Isn't Governor J. Fife Symington III proof positive that red ties still have power in Arizona? (Answer: Yes.)

The Grill strikes me as the type of place where you and your literary agent could have a frank talk when she comes to town.

black angus

"It's like office cubicles with food," we laugh.


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